This week we’re adding further results of our collaboration with the Negro League Researchers and Authors Group (Larry Lester and Wayne Stivers) with the unveiling of the 1939 Negro league season. We’ve got both leagues, the NNL and NAL, plus the postseason series. This represents the first Negro American League season we’ve done for the database--we’ll be going back to fill in the NAL’s 1937 and 1938 seasons soon.
The NAL had started in 1937 with its two oldest charter members, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Chicago American Giants, facing off in the playoffs. The next season saw something of an upheaval as, for the first time in the history of the black majors, two Southern teams contested the championship, the Memphis Red Sox defeating the Atlanta Black Crackers for the pennant. For 1939, the Indianapolis ABCs moved to St. Louis to become the latest incarnation of the St. Louis Stars; the Atlanta Black Crackers, 1938’s runners up, became the Indianapolis ABCs; and the Jacksonville Red Caps played as the Cleveland Bears.
The two playoff teams from 1938 had rough times in 1939. For the Memphis Red Sox, it was a case of first to worst, as the defending champions collapsed to last in the league. Meanwhile, the ABCs/Black Crackers couldn’t even secure a home field in Indianapolis. After playing a round of league games on the road, they returned to Atlanta, where they entertained NAL teams in mid-June. The league, which had evidently counted on cutting travel expenses, was not pleased, and demoted them to associate membership. The ABCs/Black Crackers dissolved shortly thereafter, and their players were scattered all over the league.
The Monarchs, led by Hilton Smith, Willard Brown, Ted Strong, and the veteran Turkey Stearnes, dominated the first half, and ended with by far the best overall record in the league. In the playoffs they dispatched the St. Louis Stars, winners of the second half, with ease. (We are still missing a considerable number of Stars’ home games, so at this point our stats don’t reflect fairly on the Stars and their players.)
Over in the Negro National League Alex Pompez was back with his New York Cubans to replace the failed Washington Black Senators from 1938, maintaining the league at seven members. With his home park demolished, Gus Greenlee sold the Pittsburgh Crawfords to Olympic hero Jesse Owens and a financial partner, and they moved the team to Toledo. This proved to be a little too far away for the other NNL clubs, all clustered on the east coast, and in June the Crawfords switched to the Negro American League to replace the unfortunate ABCs/Black Crackers.
In the NNL pennant race it looked like the third straight year of Grays domination, accomplished by the usual suspects (Josh Gibson, Ray Brown, Buck Leonard). But at season’s end the league decided to put on a Shaughnessy-style playoff, pitting the top four teams against each other in an elimination tournament. The Baltimore Elite Giants, a .500 team in the regular season, hit their stride at exactly the right time. They upset the Newark Eagles in the first round, setting up a final series with the Grays.
The Grays edged the first game, held in Philadelphia, 2 to 1. The Elites took the first game of a doubleheader in Baltimore’s Oriole Park, 7 to 5, with the second game ending in a 1 to 1 tie. Back in Philadelphia, the Elites’ young catcher Roy Campanella hit 4 for 5 with a double and a home run and drove in five runs to lead his team to a 10 to 5 win. The next day in Yankee Stadium, Jonas Gaines and Willie Hubert combined to hold the mighty Grays to just 3 hits in a 2 to 0 win, making the Elites the champions of the NNL. (To be fair to the Grays, they did not play a single home game during the whole playoffs.)
Although this was a third straight season of relative stability for the two leagues, no World Series was even contemplated, much less arranged.
Next up: the 1940 Negro leagues. On deck: the 1941 and 1942 Negro leagues, the 1919/20 and 1921/22 Cuban leagues, and the 1937 Negro American League.
Willard Brown and Ted Strong of the NAL champion Kansas City Monarchs.